ANALYSIS: Don’t Want to Practice Law Next Year? You Have Options

In 2023, more attorneys will have the chance to stay at law firms—but not practice law. Recent survey data from Bloomberg Law suggests that while alternative legal jobs such as in legal operations and project management aren’t the norm at firms, opportunities for lawyers to take on such non-traditional roles exist and will grow next year.

Alternative Law Firm Jobs on the Rise

The types and number of non-traditional roles held by lawyers at law firms have grown over the past several years.

From 2019 to 2021, Bloomberg Law asked attorneys who completed the Law Firm Benchmark survey to identify their professional titles, including non-traditional roles such as in legal operations, knowledge management, innovation, and data science. In 2019, not one law firm attorney reported having such a job, but two attorneys in 2020 and three attorneys in 2021 said they were chief operating officers at their firms.

In 2022, the percentage of alternative legal jobs reported via three State of Practice surveys from April through October 2022 quadrupled. Though the numbers are low, law firm respondents this year have consistently reported having non-traditional roles—and the types of roles have grown and diversified.

In the most recent State of Practice Survey, for example, four of the 199 law firm respondents (2%) identified themselves as having the alternative firm roles of COO, executive director, project manager, and legal ops director/manager/associate.

More Opportunities in Legal Ops

A portion of the growth in non-practicing roles at law firms has come from—and will continue to come from—firms creating legal ops departments.

Bloomberg Law defines legal operations as a multidisciplinary approach to managing a legal organization or department that aims to improve its efficiency, productivity, and profitability. Legal ops roles initially sprung up in corporations. Such roles have existed for two decades, but didn’t grow in popularity until the last 10 years. In 2016, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) was founded to allow in-house legal ops professionals to collaborate with each other. Since then, law firms have realized that they can benefit from standardized and automated processes to improve business and workflow. CLOC opened its doors to law firms in 2019. Recently, a number of firms announced new or expanded internal legal operations arms.

Legal operations remains a nebulous idea for many legal professionals—which isn’t surprising given that an attorney in legal ops at a law firm may have varying responsibilities. The idea that legal ops professionals perform multiple functions at firms is supported by data from Bloomberg Law’s 2022 Legal Ops & Tech Survey.

Technology implementation and budget management were the top two areas of responsibility for legal ops professionals at law firms, according to lawyer respondents to the survey.

Thus, attorneys who wish to remain with firms and put their practical experience to good use in a non-traditional position can find opportunities in legal operations—particularly if they have a background in technology or budgets. But firm attorneys who are savvy in innovation, e-discovery, change management, project management, diversity, or data science can also find a home in their firm’s legal operations group.

More Opportunities on Multidisciplinary Teams

The growth in non-traditional roles at law firms next year will also come from law firms’ usage of multidisciplinary teams. These groups bring together professionals with diverse skills to provide holistic solutions to increasingly complex legal issues and business challenges. A majority of law firm respondents (84%) to the 2022 Legal Ops & Tech Survey agreed that a group of attorneys alone could form a MDT.

In a prior analysis of this data, we suggested that attorneys—by failing to consider non-attorneys for their teams—may not appreciate the purpose and the nature of MDTs. This may be true in part, but attorneys can have more than one degree or certification, and may be appropriate candidates for a firm’s MDT. Further, these candidates bring their legal experience to the table. It therefore makes sense that, with a recession looming and the legal market facing financial uncertainty, law firms in 2023 will draw from the resources they already have, and find firm attorneys who are qualified to be in legal ops, accounting, marketing, and other diverse roles.

How to Prepare to Be a Lawyer Who Doesn’t Practice Law

Lawyers may still believe that their choices for positions at firms are limited, and that they can either practice law or….practice law. But heading into 2023, this isn’t the case. A quick perusal of the legal jobs site LawCrossing shows that as of October 24, there are over 22,000 attorney jobs at law firms—but there are also 471 listings for non-practicing attorney positions.

Next year is the time for lawyers interested in these positions to become certified in a paired skill such as marketing, technology, diversity and inclusion leadership, or even well-being leadership. Law students who are interested in available alternative roles should enroll in some of the innovative courses offered by their law schools like legal project management and legal problem solving. With non-traditional roles on the rise, such classes will be critical to preparing the lawyers of 2023 and beyond.

Although we face a possible recession and the accompanying job cuts in the near future, having more skills will better position attorneys to hold onto their jobs or even branch out into legal ops when those jobs do appear.

Access additional analyses from our Bloomberg Law 2023 series here, covering trends in Litigation, Transactional, ESG & Employment, Technology, and the Future of the Legal Industry.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, Legal Operations, In Focus: Lawyer Development, and Practical Guidance: Legal Project Management pages.

If you’re reading this on the Bloomberg Terminal, please run BLAW OUT <GO> in order to access the hyperlinked content, or click here to view the web version of this article.